To create the Olii, Fontana punctured the surface of his paintings using a sharp tool whilst the paint was still wet. He would then claw at the canvas with his fingers, instilling the works with texture and weight, before scraping, scoring and modelling more paint onto the canvas to form projecting mounds of sculptural impasto that erupt from the holes with visceral force. Having initially trained as a sculptor, Fontana never lost the sculptural and spatial impetus that drove his deeply conceptual painterly practice. Nowhere is this better materialised than in the Olii: in Concetto Spaziale, the viewer is presented with a triumphant union of the solid and the void, the tactile and the abstract. Here, the sheer energy of Fontana’s process harnesses an enigmatic combination of compulsion and serenity, beauty and force. The alluring sheen and rosy tint of the oil paint imbues the painting with potent vitality, and immediately the work commands a thrilling juxtaposition between its delicate colouring and the violent perforation inflicted by the artist. Fontana was greatly impacted by the vast scientific and technological advancements that burgeoned during his lifetime, which would culminate in the momentous Space Race of the Twentieth Century. In 1961 the world’s imagination was captured when Yuri Gagarin became the first cosmonaut to venture into the uncharted realms of outer space, soaring above the Earth in orbit. Profoundly influenced by these epoch-defining developments in space exploration, Fontana sought to contend, through the Olii, with both the exhilaration, and existential angst, that this new era proposed. Indeed, the faltering line which orbits the central void in Concetto Spaziale seems to echo Gagarin’s own wavering trajectory into the mysterious, impalpable depths of the universe.
If the Tagli were composed to celebrate the infinitude of the cosmos, the Olii seem to contemplate the darker undertone of humankind’s venture into the great unknown. Frequently rendered in intense and saturated colours ranging from vivid green to striking pink, the Olii are imbued with an unsettling sense of apprehension and fear: “The colour of the grounds of these canvases is a bit loud,” the artist declared, “[indicating] the restlessness of contemporary Man. The subtle tracing, on the other hand, is the walk of Man in space, his dismay and fear of getting lost; the slash, finally, is a sudden cry of pain, the final gesture of anxiety that has already become unbearable” (Lucio Fontana cited in: Pia Gottschaller, Lucio Fontana: The Artist’s Materials, Los Angeles 2002, p. 90). As if in emulation of Christ’s wounds on the cross, viscous pigment spills from the central perforation in the present Olii in a poetic evocation of humankind’s search for salvation through sacrifice; yet, with its rich, pink palette, the painting is simultaneously evocative of soft and fleshy skin tones, charging the composition with an alluring sensuality. This is further heightened by the gaping aperture, which might be read as an abstract and contemporary homage to Gustave Corbet’s provocative painting from 1866, L’origine du Monde: indeed, the artist would himself compare his pink Olii in Milanese dialect to “la rose di mutant di don”, or the pink of ladies’ underwear (Ibid., p. 94). Oscillating between sculptural materiality and painterly essence, religion and philosophy, carnal sensuality and scientific rigour, Concetto Spaziale is suffused with notions of rebirth in the age of cosmic exploration.
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